Saturday, February 7, 2009

Big Country - The Settlement Years

During early 1983 I purchased the first of, what would eventually become, around a thousand vinyl 45 singles, over the course of the next eight or nine years. If memory serves me correctly, Spandau Ballet’s single ‘Communication’ (see future post) may well have been the first, though ‘Wham Rap’ by Wham! and Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ would be likely candidates as well. I was living in Tasmania at that time, and had previously ‘inherited’ a few old 45’s from my older siblings, but mostly I satisfied my growing appetite for popular music by way of the various artists compilations, which were regularly released throughout the year. The compilations certainly offered more ‘bang for your buck’, usually containing up to 18 or 20 tracks on cassette format. They also offered access to songs that may have been a hit in one part of the country, but not in another. At that time of course there was no such thing as nationally syndicate radio networks, and even the major television networks only covered the big cities. It was really only the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission - later Corporation) that covered all of Australia - which emphasises just how influential the ABC’s ‘Countdown’ program was. What the lack of national coverage meant was, that it could be months between when a song became a hit in one part of the country, by comparison to another. It was largely determined by when the regional radio stations picked up on a song’s appeal.

In mid ‘83 the first ‘Countdown’ national charts began appearing in record bars (they would eventually evolve into the A.R.I.A. chart). Each week the top fifty singles (and albums) were listed, and at the bottom of each chart the top ten singles by individual State/Territory. On the back of each chart was a feature artist or song (the scanned example features, not coincidentally, Big Country). It meant that for the first time, you could easily compare a tracks performance in one part of the country with another (at least if it was in the top ten). Around the same time I relocated to New South Wales (another State of Australia), and soon after experienced a change in my music buying habits, as I was gifted my first turntable. But I recall continuing the practice of sitting for hours listening to the radio, waiting for my favourite tracks to be played, and recording them to cassette - we are talking decades before the convenience of instant access via online downloading - after all a teenagers finances will only stretch so far. Where possible I’d pick out one or two of my favourite current tracks, and trek on down to the local record bar to purchase them on vinyl 45. In late 1983 one of those ‘standout’ tracks was the surging guitar rock track ‘In A Big Country’ by Scottish band Big Country - I think I may have bought it on the same day as Jon English’s ‘Waterloo’ (see earlier post). I played the song incessantly, as I did with all of the 45’s I purchased during that period. Thankfully, though long since supplanted by CD versions, I’ve kept all of those vinyl 45’s, and from time to time crank up the turntable to relive the unique sound only a vinyl record can offer. Being one of the first 15 or 20 singles I ever purchased, ‘In A Big Country’ holds a special place in the evolution of my love affair with popular music. Just over 25 years later, the pounding drum track, and searing, anthemic ‘bagpipe’ style guitars, sound as vibrant and fresh as ever, and capture perfectly the pure rock dynamism that Big Country produced throughout their career.

The seeds of a Big Country were sown in the prototypal Scottish post-punk outfit Skids. Formed in Dunfermline, Scotland during 1977, the quartet of Richard Jobson (vocals), Stuart Adamson (guitar), Bill Simpson (bass), and Tom Kellichan (drums), quickly took up the mantel of cutting edge, guitar driven rock, positioning themselves neatly between punk and new wave movements. In early ‘78 Skids financed their first single ‘Charles/Reasons’, and released it on their own No-Bad label - a not uncommon occurrence for independent post-punk artists. They came to the attention of Virgin Records, who promptly signed them to a whopping eight album deal (an overly ambitious move). Two more singles surfaced, ‘Sweet Suburbia’ (UK#70), and ‘The Saints Are Coming’ (UK#48) during 1978, prior to the release of Skids’ debut album. Adamson (music) and Jobson (lyrics) combined to pen an impressive collection of songs on ‘Scared To Dance’ (UK#19), featuring the rousing UK#10 ‘Into The Valley’. There were already hints to the future Big Country sound, courtesy of searing, anthemic-like guitar riffs, and soaring chorus chants. Be-Bop Deluxe producer Bill Nelson oversaw Skids’ sophomore album, released just eight months later in late ‘79. ‘Days In Europa’ (UK#32) featured the British top 20 singles ‘Masquerade’ (#14), and the corporate militants call to arms ‘Working For The Yankee Dollar’ (#20). Adamson’s musical heroism, a virtual battle cry in song, helped balance out the pretentiousness offered up in some of Jobson’s lyrics.

Jobson wanted to pull Skids in a different direction to Simpson and Kellichan, both of whom left during an increasingly prevalent atmosphere of turbulence, to be replaced in time by Russell Webb and Mike Baillie respectively. 1980’s ‘The Absolute Game’ album (UK#9), criss-crossed between a further divergence into more ornate pop-rock territory and recapturing some of Adamson’s earlier raw guitar energy, but Jobson’s portentous lyrics continued to challenge listeners. The album spawned two more top fifty singles in ‘Circus Games’ (UK#32) and ‘Woman In Winter’ (UK#49), but soon after an increasingly disillusioned Stuart Adamson decided to part ways with the band. Jobson led a revamped Skids line-up for one more album, ‘Joy’, in 1981, but the album’s slightly traditional folk bent didn’t sit well with fans, and soon after Skids were on the skids. Jobson went on to try his hand as a solo artist, before forming the short-lived band (read train wreck) Armoury Show. In subsequent years he turned to careers in modelling and television journalism.

Following his departure from Skids, Stuart Adamson set about creating his own music vehicle to enable him to pursue a different stylistic path. In the Autumn of ‘81 he joined with Canadian born ex-Delinx guitarist Bruce Watson, brothers Peter (keyboards) and Alan Wishart (bass), and ex-Spizz drummer Clive Parker, to establish Big Country. Within a year both Wishart brothers and Parker had been deported…er left Big Country, and immigration welcomed a new rhythm section to Big Country. Tony Butler (bass), and Mark Brzezicki (drums), both ex-On The Air, formed the cornerstone rhythm combo upon which Big Country would build a surging musical empire.

In early ‘82 Big Country turned down a trade agreement with the Ensign label, but soon after signed a recording contract with Mercury-Phonogram, after which they relocated to London to begin work on their debut album. In late ‘82 Big Country issued their debut single ‘Harvest Home’ which slipped under the radar, but shortly after the band found themselves supporting post-punk heavyweights the Jam, on their sell out farewell tour. Naturally enough, Big Country’s profile was boosted immeasurably, and their strident, high energy brand of Celtic infused rock went down a treat with packed stadium and arena audiences. In February ‘83 the single ‘Fields Of Fire (400 Miles)’ was released, and encapsulated perfectly Big Country’s hallmark sound of anthemic choruses and stirring guitar crescendos. ‘Fields Of Fire (400 Miles)’ swept into the British top 10 (#10/US#52 in 1984) soon after, and announced the arrival of a fresh new sound - heroic guitar rock (in the vein of contemporaries, the Alarm and U2), the polar opposite of many of the moodier synth-driven new wave groups that dominated at the time. In May, Big Country’s signature song ‘In A Big Country’ was released in Britain, and further consolidated the band’s success there (#17). It also further exemplified their inspiringly soaring sound, that celebrated all things Celtic, sweeping in scale, yet managing to avoid sounding bloated and pompous. The ‘bagpipe’ style twin guitar sound, and surging rhythm section accompaniment, made you feel like you were standing tall on the windswept Scottish highlands - very Highlander like. The accompanying promo video also highlighted the band’s early trademark attire of check shirts, and featured the band careering around the Scottish countryside in mini dune buggies (or something of that ilk). Big Country’s signature ‘bagpipe’ style guitar sound, was achieved through a combination of guitar effect technology, and a device called an e-bow, which lends a synthesizer type quality to an electric guitar sound (I’m not a music technician, so please don’t ask me to expand any more on this) - whatever the technical wizardry, it had the desired effect.

Both singles were lifted from Big Country’s debut album ‘The Crossing’, produced by Steve Lillywhite (Golden Earring, XTC, Ultravox, U2), and released in Britain during June ‘83. The album was a richly diverse effort, full of passion and inspiration, that soon had critics hailing Big Country as standard bearers for a new rock movement dubbed ‘positive punk’. The Celtic inspired arrangements flowed throughout, and like U2, Big Country had a strong, but not overpowering, social conscience infused within their lyrics. They also had a softer side, musically, as captured on the single ‘Chance’ (UK#9/OZ#85), a heartfelt Springsteen-esque ballad, every bit as emotive and stirring as ‘Fields Of Fire’ and the like. Before 1983 had closed, Big Country had started playing major rock festivals like Reading (alongside the Alarm), and had also broken into both U.S. and Australian markets, with the singles ‘In A Big Country’ (US#17/OZ#7) and ‘Fields Of Fire (400 Miles)’ (US#52), whilst their album ‘The Crossing’ went on to achieve platinum status in Britain (#3), and gold in both the U.S. (#18) and Australia (#21).

In early ‘84 Big Country released the single, and accompanying EP, ‘Wonderland’ (UK#8/OZ#43/US#86), which astonishingly would be Big Country’s last foray into the U.S. singles charts. The band spent the next few months on an extensive world tour, which included a stint as Queen’s opening act, before settling back into the studio to begin chart a course for the next chapter in the Big Country journey.

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